Daily Archives: February 20, 2016

Solution to the Apple Kerfuffle

Syed Farook and Tasheen Malik killed fourteen people in San Bernadino, California. They apparently tried to dump their Apple iPhone, which actually belonged to his employer, the San Bernadino Health Department. Now, the FBI wants to see what’s in the phone and if it provides information to prevent future violent actions. The problem is that after ten attempts to enter the password, the phone erases its memory. The FBI wants Apple to unlock the phone’s memory and have a court order demanding to do so. Apple is refusing.

There are complex issues with the court order for Apple to unlock the iPhone used by the terrorists in California. Apple—and others—point out that if a “back door” is built into the software, somebody else will figure out how to crack into the phones. It is likely that these will be bad guys of one flavor or another. On the other hand, the phone may contain information that is critical to protect us from future attacks. Given that ISIS now has a quantity of Iridium 192, such an attack could be a dirty bomb, with hundreds or thousands of people exposed to radioactive material.

I propose a different approach.

If the solution is software, then it can be hacked. However, if a hardware hack is used, it would be more limited. It seems to me that Apple could physically remove the memory chip from the phone and make copies of its contents. Years ago there were programs that copied data bit-by-bit. This means that every 1 and 0 (the way that computers store all their data) would be copied exactly as they exist in the original.

This “master” could then be bit-by bit copied as many times as necessary; the FBI would have an infinite number of copies of the data to try to crack the password. After 10 failed attempts, the copy would erase, and the FBI could go to the next copy.

The advantage of using an approach that is hardware based means that it could be stipulated that breaking into a smartphone would require the legal physical possession of the phone and an appropriate court order to access the data. Since smartphones are radio devices and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, this should be a federal judge so the Podunkville (population 15) judge couldn’t issue such an order.

It just might work.